The Cerebral Vortex
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So I have decided to go out into the sports world, probably toward the end of regular seasons, and find "The Best Team No One Wants To Acknowledge" from among the contenders. I am hoping to get this to be a semi-regular column here, so let me know what needs to be done with this to make it more palatable for you, the readers. I will probably be putting out new editions near the end of NFL, NCAAB, NHL, NBA, MLS, MLB, and any other seasons I find myself following which have playoffs -- i.e. no European soccer leagues because they are on a home-and-away round-robin format -- so if you have suggestions just send 'em on down to me through the FanMail or in the comments section below... ???

With that said, we are one week away from the end of the NFL's regular season. Most teams are already locked into their playoff position -- both conferences only have one slot remaining for wild-card teams. Only Cleveland and Tennessee remain in contention in the AFC; the NFC has Washington and Minnesota the 8-7 frontrunners ahead of 7-8 New Orleans, the only team with a mathematical chance to leapfrog both the Redskins and Vikings if both were to lose next weekend. ???

So, which team is coming into the NFL postseason as the biggest sleeper with the greatest potential? To be declared "The Best Team No One Wants To Acknowledge", a team must be loaded with the tools and intangibles necessary to sustain success while simultaneously being completely disregarded as having a legitimate chance to sustain said success. I'll give you a hint -- they lost yesterday...

In his Monday Morning Quarterback, Peter King offered up an interesting quote I will repeat -- he has better access to league and team personnel than do I! (start quoted text) Interesting comment from a prominent league official last Friday. "The Bucs are amazing,'' said the official. "They're running away with their division, they've got a quarterback who's played great in the playoffs, they've got a Super Bowl coach, and it's like they don't exist. You never hear a word about them when people talk about Super Bowl contenders.'' (end quoted text)

So at least one league official believes that Tampa bay has the benefit of stunted expectations keeping them in the background. While Green Bay and Dallas continue their arms race into the postseason, the Buccaneers are quietly growing an impressive team which could easily play spoiler...

Let’s break down the message behind what that league official told King.

1. They’re running away with their division...

Coming into the season, the Buccaneers faced an uphill battle. Coming off a 4-12 season in which many were calling for coach Jon Gruden’s head, Tampa was expected to be mired in the basement of their division. The Saints had just come off a disappointing defeat to the Bears in the NFC Championship game. The Panthers were drumming up their usual preseason hype amongst the pundits. Petrino looked poised to have Vick and the Falcons in the divisional hunt. The Buccaneers were afterthoughts... and the trend continues. The NFC South is theirs, a date with the New York Giants in the wild-card round awaits, and yet few consider Tampa as a team with potential to go all the way...


2. ...they’ve got a quarterback who’s played great in the playoffs...

But the quarterback position, so unstable as the team cycled through Chris Simms (who ruptured his spleen in week three against Carolina), Bruce Gradkowski (replaced in week fifteen due to ineffectiveness), and Tim Rattay (now in Arizona), is now steady because of one simple offseason acquisition.

After leading Philadelphia to the playoffs when Donovan McNabb went down last season, the Eagles refused to even tender an offer to free agent quarterback Jeff Garcia. Philly’s trash has turned out to be Tampa’s treasure, with Garcia inheriting the caretaker quarterback mantle which has been vacated since Brad Johnson left town...

And Garcia is playing as well or better than Johnson did in that Super Bowl XXXVII season. Never the flashiest of quarterbacks, what both Johnson and Garcia have done so well in Gruden’s offense is playing conservative, mistake-deficient football. Their statlines are eerily similar:

Johnson (2002): 13 G, 281-451 (62.3%), 3049 yd (6.8 YPA), 22 TD-6 INT, 92.9 RAT
Garcia (2007): 13 G, 209-327 (63.9%), 2440 yd (7.5 YPA), 13 TD-4 INT, 94.6 RAT

The immediate impulse here is to instantly look at Johnson’s bigger yardage and touchdown numbers and say he did more for the Bucs offense. But, looking closer, Garcia has a better completion percentage and quarterback rating, better yards-per-attempt average, and has thrown only four interceptions to Johnson’s six -- in the same number of games. Johnson was injured three games during that 2002 season; Garcia had to sit out weeks thirteen and fourteen with a badly bruised lower back.

Further, Garcia is getting better support from the running game than Johnson ever enjoyed. In 2002, top running back Michael Pittman rushed 204 times for 718 yards and one touchdown. This season, in his first year of full-time duty, undrafted Earnest Graham has already rushed 222 times for 898 yards... fully half a yard per carry more than Pittman gave a Super Bowl-winning squad. Graham already has FOUR MORE TOUCHDOWNS, furthermore, than the ENTIRE 2002 Tampa rushing attack. Here are their full statlines to compare:

2002: 414-1,557 (3.8 avg), 97.3 YPG, 6 TD-6 FUM
2007: 423-1,765 (4.2 avg), 117.7 YPG, 15 TD-6 FUM

Garcia doesn’t have to throw as many touchdown passes as Johnson because Gruden has confidence that Graham and the other backs will get the ball over the plane in goal-line situations. It is the way Garcia manages the game in getting the team down into those opportunist situations that has these Buccaneers quietly surging.

Back in 2002, Sean Salisbury wrote on ESPN.com these words:

“Accurate, smart, prepared, focused -- we talk a lot about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers No. 1 defense, and rightfully so, but if the Bucs advance to the Super Bowl, it will be because of...”

Salisbury was writing about Johnson, of course... but he just as easily could have been referring to this year’s Tampa team; if the Buccaneers were to advance to Super Bowl XLII, it will be in large part because of the poise and leadership and experience of Jeff Garcia...


3. ...they’ve got a Super Bowl coach...

...as well as the work of its long-embattled coach, another JG in TB. Jon Gruden came to the Buccaneers that 2002 season after jumping ship from the Oakland Raiders. Long held as a burgeoning young visionary in an old-man’s world, Gruden had gone 40-28 in four seasons with Oakland after taking over then-meaningless Raiders. He posted four straight non-losing seasons, but couldn’t get his team to the promised land of Super Bowl glory. In 2000, 12-4 Oakland lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore when QB Rich Gannon went down early in the AFC Championship game. In 2001, the 10-6 Raiders were stymied by eventual Super Bowl champion New England in the infamous “Tuck Rule” game. Then, a high-profile trade sent Gruden to the other conference and the other side of the country...

Two first-rounders, two second-rounders and eight million in cash later, Gruden was being announced as the replacement for Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay. The first season saw nothing but success, and Tampa went on to win the Super Bowl in convincing fashion over Gruden’s former employer. But even as the Bucs were hoisting the Lombardi trophy, there were doubts about whether Gruden had had to do much to get the team to the top. Several of his players, and millions more armchair quarterbacks across the land, thought the Tampa championship had to do more with the departed Dungy and his cover-two defensive scheme implemented with retained defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. The next few seasons would try to prove them right.

But the fact remains that, even despite his record with Tampa in the next two seasons (12-20) and in 2006 (4-12), Gruden is a lifetime 91--75 (.548) coach in both regular- and postseason play. He is one of only six active coaches who have won a Super Bowl. He has done his best work when his back was against the wall: the Buccaneers won the NFC South only two years ago, going 11-5 before losing a tight 17-10 contest against Washington; and this season, after the worst losing year for the Buccaneers since the moribund 1991 campaign, the Buccaneers are poised to host a playoff game yet again.

And a lot of this comes down to the work of Gruden and his staff. The quarterback-hoarding coach has performed some of his greatest coaching work with an aging and unheralded cast.

A testament to the coaching staff in Tampa, perhaps the greatest, is that they have the defense this season humming at near-2002 levels. No greater compliment can be given to Gruden, Kiffin and the rest of the defensive coaching staff. The 2007 incarnation of the vaunted defense is near the top in every statistical category. Still not quite as formidable as the 2002 edition, this year’s defense doesn’t have to be; the league as a whole has drifted in favor of offensive production. Here are great measuring sticks by which to gauge the two, their league rankings for the respective seasons:

YARDS ALLOWED PER GAME:
2002 - 252.8 (#1)
2007 - 273.7 (#2)

YARDS ALLOWED PER PLAY:
2002 - 4.2 (#1)
2007 - 4.5 (#1)

POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME:
2002 - 12.2 (#1)
2007 - 15.9 (#1)

PASSING YARDS ALLOWED PER GAME:
2002 - 155.6 (#1)
2007 - 170.6 (#2)

PASSING TOUCHDOWNS ALLOWED:
2002 - 10 (#1)
2007 - 16 (#3)

RUSHING YARDS ALLOWED PER GAME:
2002 - 97.1 (#5)
2007 - 103.1 (#13)

RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS ALLOWED:
2002 - 8 (#3)
2007 - 9 (#8)

Just like the 2002 squad, this year’s defense are pass-defending demons... shocking given that Kiffin is still implementing the trademark Tampa Cover-Two. They are above-average against the running game, just like the 2002 squad... also unremarkable, given the strengths and deficiencies so well-documented about said system...


4. ...it’s like they don’t exist...

... but the best thing this Tampa squad has going for it this year is the fact that it is not entering the postseason as one of the favorites. Able to fly under the radar, the Buccaneers will come in well prepared to host Eli Manning and the New York Giants. Nobody is heaping Super Bowl expectations on their shoulders, but this squad is as capable as the franchise’s only Super Bowl winner. The bulk of the coaching staff is the same; the quarterback is a perfect fit for Gruden’s horizontal-passing field-general-as-caretaker position; and, while everyone has obsessed about the Packers and the Cowboys as the class of the NFC, the team from central Florida has been quietly assembling a squad and a resume which, while seemingly unremarkable, is extremely capable of getting through its conference. The NFL’s 2007 “Best Team No One Wants To Acknowledge”, the team which the front-runners could easily overlook until it is too late, is these Tampa Bay Buccaneers...

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